The Last Stanzia — Part II
“The arrival of the Mirrer talmidim galvanized the yeshivah students of America,” Harav Shlomo Brevda, zt”l, once said. “I remember that my friends and I saw them breathing the fire of Torah as they ‘talked in learning,’ while walking the streets of East New York. It was a new experience for us, and it inspired us to emulate them as we aspired for the greatness we were witnessing.
“I shared a room with a young [Harav] Reuven Fain, one of the youngest talmidim of the Mir. The first time I saw him, he was in such a deep slumber that I was a bit surprised. Is this what we were to expect from the Mirrer bachurim? Soon, he awakened and spent the next eight hours deeply engrossed in the words of Rabi Akiva Eiger, and I was quick to understand from where the exhaustion came.”
A new dawn had arrived in America as the talmidim of the Mir, now stationed in America, taught their American counterparts by lesson and by example how Torah had arrived in its Last Stanzia.
The Journey Continues… in New York
At first, the students of the Mir settled in Arverne, a vacation community near Far Rockaway, but this home was only temporary. The arrival of summer and the opening of the local beaches meant that it was time to move on.
“Although the families stayed in houses, many of the bachurim were able to dorm in an unused Coast Guard barracks [in Arverne],” Harav Yerucham Leshinsky, shlita, relates. “During the war, the government was afraid that enemy submarines would attack from the sea and they patrolled the beaches. Now that the war was over, the patrols were eliminated, and there were empty barracks at 79th Street which the bachurim used as a dormitory.
“The yeshivah used Congregation Anshei Sfard at 210 Beach 75th Street for learning, and the simchah room of Congregation Derech Emunah at Beach 67th Street and Larkin Avenue for their meals. They stayed there for several months until the summer began, at which point Rav Chatzkel told them they would have to move before the beaches opened.
“Arrangements were made for the yeshivah to move to the neighborhood of East New York, which was in the northeastern corner of Brooklyn straddling the border of the borough of Queens.”
Rebbetzin Esther Levin née Ginsberg, the daughter of Harav Efraim Mordechai, zt”l, and a granddaughter of the Mashgiach Harav Chatzkel Levenstein, zt”l, recalls that her family did not leave Arverne right away. “There was a housing shortage in America, since there were hundreds of thousands of GIs returning from the battlefields of Europe and the Far East. My family could not find an apartment to rent, so we stayed in Arverne. Of course, our spacious rooms upstairs were rented out by the vacationers when the summer arrived, and we had to move downstairs to the basement. After a few months, we were able to get an apartment on Jersey Street in East New York.
“From time to time I returned to visit Arverne, since I was friends with Shulamis Garfinkel, a”h, from Shanghai and her family remained in Arverne. She later married Harav Yitzchak Kaplinsky, zt”l, whose father, Rav Avraham Yisrael, zt”l, had been a Mirrer talmid. Rav Kaplinsky was a Rav in Europe before the war and served as a Rav for the refugee community in Shanghai, and became a Rav in Arverne.”
* * *
“My family rented an apartment at Beach 74th Street from the Herbst family when they arrived in Arverne,” says Rebbetzin Miriam Gifter née Kaplinsky. “Eventually, some of the year-round residents opened Congregation Chevre Ohel Moshe on 70th Street, and they my father as their Rav for over three decades until there was no Jewish community remaining in Arverne. In 1969, we moved with the shul to Far Rockaway, where the shul stood on Beach 12th Street with my father as Rav until he was niftar in 1980. My brother, who lived in Boro Park, kept up the shul for 25 years until my mother passed away. It was then sold to the kollel, so it continued to be used for Torah.
“My three brothers, Michel, Yitzchak and Binyamin were born in Shanghai, while my brother Chaim and I were born in America. Nevertheless, the Mir and Shanghai remained part of our family. A great talmid chacham who was affected by the trauma of the war would drop by our house often, and my mother took care of him and supplied him with food and clothing.”
* * *
Mrs. Shaindel (Jean) Bick née Frankel remembers when the Mir arrived in Arverne, the neighborhood in which she grew up. “My father was a peddler who sold various dry goods, like clothing, towels and linen. He did not have money to give to the yeshivah, but whenever he had some goods that he knew they could use, he would give some to the bachurim.
“My family got to know Harav Henoch Fishman, zt”l, who was already married with two children when they arrived from Shanghai. He was the shadchan for my husband, Rabbi Avraham Bick, zt”l, and myself, and after we married we settled in Far Rockaway. I remained close with both the Kaplinsky family and the Fishman family, and although I now live in Eretz Yisrael, we still speak on the phone from time to time.”
* * *
Ameilus, Simchah and Awe Despite Poverty
While Arverne had dormitory facilities, East New York did not, and the bachurim resorted to living in stanzias as they had in the city of Mir. Groups of talmidim boarded with individual families or in rented apartments.
“One Erev Shabbos, my father met a bachur on Ashford Street where we lived,” Reb Chaim Stein, who grew up in East New York, recalls. “The yeshivah was learning in Chevre Bnai Josef, located at 272 Pennsylvania Ave near Belmont Avenue, and they ate their meals at Ateres Tiferes Yisrael at 469-481 Ashford Street. That shul had two buildings, one of which had been a Talmud Torah, and they were able to use that as a dining room.
“This bachur, Nechemia Malin, was looking for a stanzia near the yeshivah, and my parents took him in. He stayed with us for a year and a half.
“My father was involved in helping the yeshivah and arranged that Harav Reuven Ginsberg, the son-in-law of the Mashgiach, should serve as the Shabbos Rav of Ateres Tiferes Yisrael, for which he received a salary of $25 per week. It was not much, but he already had a family and the extra funds certainly came in handy,” Reb Chaim adds.
The poverty of the talmidim was often extreme. Most had little or no family, and the yeshivah struggled to supply them with the basics. Once, when a resident of East New York complained about the talmidim davening in loud tones, a bystander retorted, “They are extremely poor, and they cannot hire someone else to do their crying for them.”
Reb Chaim Stein relates how he once invited some of his chaveirim from Mesivta Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin to observe the davening in the yeshivah. “We were just bar mitzvah, and we observed Harav Leib Malin, zt”l, davening a regular weekday Shemoneh Esrei. He looked like he was davening the tefillah of Ne’ilah.”
When Shavuos arrived, the talmidim learned the entire night, and joined in a rekidah around the beis medrash after davening. The local residents, who had never experienced such a display of joy from limud haTorah, were taken aback by the sight and talked about it for many days. “My father never forgot that scene of the talmidim dancing on Shavuos morning,” Reb Chaim recalls.
The awe the talmidim had for the Mashgiach was incredible. On a regular day, no one dared sit in the first three seats behind where the Mashgiach davened, even though the Mashgiach davened facing the wall. On the Yamim Nora’im, when space was limited, they were a bit more lenient and only two seats were left empty behind the Mashgiach’s place.
As Simchas Torah came around, the talmidim celebrated joyously, with many imbibing considerable amounts of wine to lift their spirits as they danced in ecstasy. One talmid, who had drunk more than usual, was dancing excitedly on a table when the Mashgiach passed by and told him sternly, “Genug (Enough)!”
“I was amazed as I witnessed this young talmid jump off the table immediately. He seemed to sober up instantly,” Reb Chaim Stein recalls. “The reverence they had for the Mashgiach was unbelievable.”
The First Yamim Nora’im
The yeshivah settled into its routine of learning, davening and mussar in its new location. Harav Efraim Mordechai Ginsberg, zt”l, the son-in-law of the Mashgiach, had already been giving shiurim to the younger talmidim in Shanghai. Harav Chaim Shmuelevitz encouraged him to continue in New York, and he was given the title of Rosh Yeshivah. He delivered his shiur in Congregation Magen Avraham at 437 Schenck Avenue (pronounced “Skenk”), near the Mashgiach’s apartment.
In Elul 5707 (1947), Harav Shmuel Brudny, zt”l, was appointed by Harav Avraham Kalmanowitz, zt”l, to give the shiur to the young American bachurim who were joining the yeshivah. He delivered his shiurim in the shul of the Novominsker Rebbe, Harav Nachum Mordechai Perlow, zy”a, at 931 Dumont Avenue near New Lots Avenue. “I heard from the Novominsker Rebbe, Rav Yaakov, zt”l, that he sat in the ezras nashim in his father’s shul and listened in on the early shiurim of my father, Rav Shmuel,” said Harav Elya Brudny.
As Rosh Hashanah approached, the yeshivah was faced with a dilemma. On Shabbosos, the yeshivah would daven at 7:00 a.m. and the regular minyan of the shul would daven at 9:00 a.m. However, this arrangement would not work for the Yamim Nora’im, and the Mashgiach was insistent that they secure a place where they could daven separately. When they suggested to the baalei batim that they use the Talmud Torah building, the response was that the shul rented it out for local residents to hold a minyan there on the Yamim Nora’im, and this was a needed source of income for the shul that they could not forgo.
When the yeshivah suggested that they would pay the cost of the rental, they were asked, “Where will you get the funds?” The Mashgiach answered simply, “If need be, I will tell the talmidim to forgo their meals for a day, and if we need more money, they will forgo their meals for two days.” After hearing that, funds were raised to cover the costs, and the Mirrer talmidim had a place for the Yamim Nora’im.
Several outsiders joined those tefillos, including Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Lessin, the Mashgiach of RIETS, who had recently lost his wife, and Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Riff, Rabbi of Camden, NJ, and a grandson of Harav Rafael Shapiro of Volozhin.
Harav Reuven Ginsberg did not want to miss davening in yeshivah and informed Mr. Stein of his intentions. “You will soon be moving to Eretz Yisrael and will need some money,” Mr. Stein countered. “On Rosh Hashanah, the people who purchase aliyos generally make a Mi shebeirach for the Rav and pledge a donation for the Rav. I think it is important that you attend the davening in the shul.”
After much deliberation, Rav Reuven agreed to remain in the shul for Shacharis but went to the yeshivah right after that. He spent time reviewing the halachos of tekias shofar with Mr. Stein, who was the baal tokei’a, so that he should be proficient in what was required for the mitzvah.
The Mashgiach Departs; the Mir Continues
Although the yeshivah had established itself in East New York, the Mashgiach was determined to move to Eretz Yisrael. In Adar 5709/March 1949, he was finally able to bring his dream to fruition.
A seudas preidah was planned, and Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, the Rosh Yeshivah of Kletzsk and later Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, attended. The Mashgiach told the talmidim that he did not believe that true bnei Torah could grow in America. Rav Aharon banged on the table and declared, “Zei vellen yah vaksen — They will grow!”
Harav Leizer Ginsberg, shlita, a grandson of the Mashgiach and presently the Rosh Kollel of Mirrer Yeshivah in Brooklyn, explained the difference of opinion between his grandfather and Rav Aharon. “Truthfully, America had such tremendous challenges that it would have been impossible to raise true bnei Torah, as the zeide said. Yet he was viewing America as it stood by itself. America with Rav Aharon was different, and indeed with the fire of Rav Aharon that he infused into American youth, America could and would produce beautiful bnei Torah.”
While the arrival of the Mir can be seen as the culmination of the vision of Harav Chaim Volozhiner that America would be the last stanzia for the Torah in our long galus, perhaps the arrival several years earlier of Harav Aharon Kotler, who strengthened the fledgling yeshivos that already existed and introduced the concept of European-style yeshivos, was the way Hashem sought to bring Torah to these shores before the Mir’s arrival. This was indeed similar to Yehudah’s arrival in Mitzrayim before the Shevatim and the charash u’masgeir coming to Bavel before the rest of the nation. True, it would be difficult to raise bnei Torah in materialistic America, but with the advance arrival of Rav Aharon, it could come to fruition.
At the same seudas preidah, the talmidim let the Mashgiach know that they felt he was abandoning them. The Mashgiach pointed to his talmid, Hirsh Asia, and said, “He knows why I am going to Eretz Yisrael.” When the talmidim later asked him for the explanation, he told them that he had an uncle in Petach Tikvah who acted as a conduit for the Mashgiach to send letters to the Chazon Ish, zt”l, in Bnei Brak. “The Chazon Ish told him to come to Eretz Yisrael and that’s why the Mashgiach is leaving.” Indeed, even before they left Shanghai, the Mashgiach had communicated with the Chazon Ish and informed him that he was unable to wait any longer for a certificate, and he would have to go temporarily to America.
* * *
On the day of their departure, Mr. Stein and Mr. Tzvi Hersh Edelman drove Rav Chatzkel and Rav Reuven Ginsberg. Mr. Stein, the more experienced driver, led the way. Mr. Edelman, who was driving Rav Chatzkel, asked him why he was rushing to leave. “There is a war going on in Eretz Yisrael at this time. Why do you feel compelled to leave just now?” he asked.
“Moshiach is coming,” Rav Chatzkel answered. “If I am in Eretz Yisrael, I won’t be thrown out. But if I am here in America, who says they will let me in?”
* * *
As time went on, many of the Alte Mirrers got married and took their places at the forefront of harbotzas haTorah in America, Eretz Yisrael and elsewhere. Harav Avrohom Kalmanowitz moved the yeshivah to Ocean Parkway in Flatbush, and a group of 12 Alte Mirrers, led by Harav Leib Malin, established Yeshivah Beis Hatalmud first in East New York and later in Bensonhurst. Some of the Alte Mirrers continued on to Eretz Yisrael where they became the next generation of Roshei Yeshivah there.
As it established itself in America, the yeshivah world looked up to the Mirrer Yeshivah as the symbol of a “real” yeshivah, as they had transferred the true form of a European yeshivah to the shores of America. And so, the sole yeshivah that remained intact throughout the war, both physically and spiritually, took the lead in building Torah in der letzteh stanzia, its last station before the coming of Moshiach.
Next stop, Yerushalayim habenuyah. All aboard.
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